Midnight’s Children and Postmodernism

 

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I was recently reminded of Salmon Rushdie’s book Midnight’s Children. It tells the story of Saleem who was born at the exact moment when India gained its independence. It is considered one of the great works of post colonial writing and of Magical realism. I was reminded of it when we were studying post modern film this year.  Many of the characteristics of a postmodern narrative are also used in this novel. Just like the film Good Bye Lenin! by Wolfgang Becker the story in Midnight’s Children mirrors the real events of what is taking place in India. I wanted to take a look at these two texts in order to show their similarities and to also show the elements of postmodernism in both of these texts.

They both use politics as a major theme in telling their story. There are many real and fictional historical facts mixed in together. Good Bye Lenin is set in Germany and it takes place during the time that the Berlin wall comes down. It is a very significant time for Germany. Both of these stories use metafiction in the narrative. There are also elements of Pastiche and nostalgia in both stories. Rushdie evokes a longing for an old India where they could dream of independence in an idealised way. Alex in Good Bye Lenin! is also trying to regain a history that is long gone. His mother Christiane also has an idealised version of her home in her mind but Germany has now radically changed and despite his efforts Alex cannot go back to that past history.

Rushdie’s narrative style is unusual, not only is it often unreliable but this is constantly being pointed out to the reader. Padma and Saleem both make reference to the fact that there are several incorrect details within Saleem’s story. This causes the reader to distrust the story being told right from the beginning.  Salem is the main protagonist in this novel and he narrates the story himself. It is told in the first person narrative by one of the characters. This is a framed narrative. The reader is discovering the story as he writes it. It is the story of Saleem’s life told as he remembers it or sometimes as he creates it. The story is relayed through thoughts and memories.  In the case of Good Bye Lenin! the audience is aware that Alex is creating a false narrative for his mother. He invents news stories and bulletins that have the wrong information for her. This also makes him an unreliable narrator. The audience is forced to make their own judgements rather than trust the account that is being offered to them.

Midnight’s Children is the story of Saleem Sinai who is one of the children who is born at the exact moment that India gets its independence from Britain. Saleem believes that he is “handcuffed to history” as a result. (Rushdie, 3) He is one of the midnight’s children and this continues to be an important influence on his life. It becomes clear later in the novel that Saleem is not the only one in India who believes his birth links him with the fate of India and it’s freedom. Nehru writes to Saleem and in the letter he says “We shall be watching over your life with the closest attention; it will be, in a sense, the mirror of our own” (Rushdie 167) Often when a character within the story is telling it presents a single perspective or viewpoint to the reader. Midnight’s Children avoids this from happening by creating the character Padma. Padma is the narrate of the novel. She constantly questions Saleem’s version of events and attempts to bring him back to reality. She continues to fights against parts of Saleem’s story. Disagreeing mostly with the way it is being told rather than its content.

The reader is forced to pay attention to the way the story is being told because Padma is an illiterate factory worker. Due to the fact that she is illiterate her response to the structure of this story is informed by her lack of familiarity with the written word. Saleem is really irritated by what he thinks is her lack of respect for language. “Padma our plump padma – is sulking magnificently. She can’t read and, like all fish-lovers, dislikes other people knowing anything she doesn’t.” (Rushdie 24) Padma is also a realist reader. She demands reality at all times when listening to this story. Saleem says “But here is padma at my elbow, bullying me back into the world of linear narrative, the universe of what-happens next?” (Rushdie 44) Padma demands that Saleem tell his story in a more straightforward manner. She wants him to stick to the facts as they happened.

Saleem on the other hand wishes to cross over into the world of magic and fantasy. This also reminded me of Good Bye Lenin and of postmodern film because it is constantly demanding the audience to examine the idea of truth. It does not accept that there is only one version of the truth. Everyone has their own idea of what is real and true for them. The role of the audience in Good Bye Lenin! is similar to that of Padma’s in Midnight’s Children. They are both asked to participate in the story and object to it if they don’t agree with any part of it. Participation is an important part of post modern work. It does not want the audience to be a silent witness.

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Neither stories are told in a linear way. Midnight’s Children is told in a circular, roundabout manner. This type of temporal distortion is also very common in post modern works. Time becomes something that is fluid and changing. These stories can often jump back and forward and they can also skip out huge periods of time.  Very often they are not told in chronological order because people do not think in that way. They rely on their thoughts and memories to relay events. Of course memories are entirely subjective and not always reliable. A person’s memory of an event can be totally different to that of another’s. We see this when people talk about their childhood. Their experience can be totally different to that of their siblings who appears to have had exactly the same experience.

The passing of time also affects the telling of this story.  Saleem in Midnight’s Children often admits to forgetting how events unfolded.  His facts are often incorrect. He supplies the wrong date when he talks about the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. He then alerts the reader to his mistake “The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi occurs, in these pages, on the wrong date. But I cannot say, now, what the actual sequence of events might have been; in my India, Gandhi will continue to die at the wrong time.” (Rushdie 229) Alex in Good Bye Lenin! of course is well aware that his facts are incorrect and this is intentional as he is trying to prevent his mother from having another heart attack if she discovers the changes that have taken place ion Germany. However Alex does remember his childhood in a very idealised way. The audience in both stories is not only going on the journey through Saleem and Alex’s life but they also embark on the journey of India’s life and the life of East Germany. Both of these countries are experiencing a lot of change and upheaval during the course of the narrative. India and Germany are also beginning a new life and sometimes this kind of change can be difficult. These lives continue to connect with each other at various points in the story.

The narrative also has a sense of urgency to it. Saleem wants to get the story down on paper before he forgets it and Alex wants to protect his mother from the truth about Germany. Perhaps Rushdie and Becker also have the same urgency to tell the story of their country before it is forgotten or distorted by history. Padma longs for Saleem to tell a more straightforward story but perhaps there isn’t just one simple version when it comes to the history of a country. It is always much more complex than that and these narrative styles reflect the complexity of history.

Magical realism is also a part of both stories and an important part of postmodern works. Magic realism allows the story to include magical elements in a real setting. These two contradictory terms are used to explain a genre whereby reality and fantasy live side by side. The reader must now determine the truth. The term magic realism is an oxymoron. Saleem has gained the power of telepathy from being born at midnight on the date of India’s independence. All of the midnight’s children acquired a magical power due to the date and time of their birth. These powers diminish through the course of their lives. The presence of these two elements reality and fantasy creates a tension in the novel. In a way Saleem is the magic and Padma is the realism in the story. We can see both being represented in the narrative. Both are also equally important to the story. The reader needs both in order to understand the narrative and the complexity of this countries history.

Padma questions the magical elements the same way the reader would “What nonsense, our Padma says, How can a picture talk?” (Rushdie 55) The reader is brought back and forth between these two ways of thinking. Even though these two elements contradict each other they also complement each other very well. In Good Bye Lenin! Alex recalls the story of a German astronaut going into space that took place in his childhood. Once again this is a real historical fact but it gets distorted because the figure of Sigmund Jahn shows up in the story and it is up to the audience to decide if it is really him or not. Magical realism is considered to define a story as a post modern piece of work. More than one perspective is allowed to come through by using this technique in order to tell a story.

Work Cited

 

Good Bye Lenin!. Dir. Wolfgang Becker. Ocean Fim, 2003. Film.

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children London: Vintage, 2008. Print.

 

 

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